- The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History by Susan Scott Parrish
This book investigates a flood that sprawled across forty percent of the United States (and some of Canada), killing hundreds (and perhaps thousands, since African American deaths were not included in any "official" count), displacing nearly one million people—including 300,000 African Americans who were placed in makeshift camps, which the Red Cross called "concentration camps" and which reproduced a particularly American racial logic—and stimulating an enormous range of intellectual and aesthetic production from the Mississippi Delta blues of Bessie Smith to the Berlin radio broadcasts of Walter Benjamin. The 1927 Mississippi flood, Parrish argues at length, and quite compellingly, should be understood as one of the central events in the history of modernism.
This is a work that situates the disaster alongside others of its era: World War I, the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression, fascism and genocide in Europe and the Near East. Parrish aspires to bring "eco-catastrophe into our discussions of modernity, its experiences, and its cultures," and to explore "how this disaster took on form and meaning as it was nationally and internationally represented across multiple media platforms, both while the flood moved inexorably southward and, subsequently, over the next two decades" (3–4). Consequently, and because it illuminates so well the wide range of cultural forms given shape by the flood, The Flood Year 1927 ought to take a prominent place among other important works in modernist studies devoted to disaster and trauma. It will be of particular interest to scholars of environmental humanities and others seeking models for the integration of ecocritical scholarship with modernist studies, and its focus on the complex historical roots of this most unnatural of "natural" disasters will challenge us to revisit our assumptions about "man-made" disasters such as wars and financial collapses. Indeed, one of Parrish's signal achievements is the excavation of a set of discursive practices ranging from journalism to blues music to the experimental novels of William Faulkner that articulate an awareness of the inseparability of "man" and "nature" in the modern world. Failure to discern this foundational concept, she suggests, is symptomatic of the political and social history that made the flood possible in the first place, and continues to obscure its important lessons for us in the age of the emphatically man-made Hurricane Katrina and its now-prolific successors.
Parrish's book will not be confused with other narratives of the flood's history, usually political histories with a primary focus on the land-use policies that emerged in the flood's aftermath; the most prominent among these is John M. Barry's Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (1997), which Parrish cites frequently. Instead, Parrish utilizes a wide range of theoretical texts and devotes her chapters to a series of case studies to demonstrate both the embeddedness of the flood zone in a heavily mediated "contemporaneous global skein" and the imaginative responses to the flood that registered its cultural impact [End Page 616] in the midst of the modernist era (11). After an early chapter provides a more general historical account of the flood and its national scale, subsequent chapters address Bessie Smith's "BackWater Blues" and other African American musicians' treatment of the flood; the portrayal of the disaster in vaudeville and minstrel performances, including several highly publicized fundraising benefits sponsored by organizations outside the South; the flood-inspired aesthetics of Faulkner's early masterpieces The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), and Faulkner's return to the flood in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939); and the contributions of the flood to Richard Wright's nascent political thought and creative work. Parrish is also quite attentive to print journalism, combing through the archives of major national newspapers as well as those of the African American press and smaller local newspapers in areas most directly affected by the flood; the flood's mediation is a vital...